The belief that ‘In sweet music is such art, / Killing care and grief of heart / Fall asleep, or hearing, die’ (Shakespeare) is central to Claire van Kampen’s story of the relationship between King Philippe of Spain and the castrato Farinelli, and it is as convincingly portrayed here at the Duke of York’s theatre as it had been at the tiny Sam Wanamaker playhouse. Iestyn Davies reprises his singing of the part of Farinelli (shared later in the run with Rupert Enticknap and Owen Willetts) and it was his performance of (mostly) Handel arias which especially delighted and, it seemed in many cases, astonished the audience.
Of course Handel and Farinelli were never really collaborators, since the former favoured that other ‘star,’ Senesino, but the choice of arias was beautifully apt for the narrative, whether in the barnstorming Venti, Turbini sung to ‘entertain’ the audience, standing in for ‘rustics,’ or the aching sadness of Cara Sposa and the deep melancholy of Lascia, Ch’io Pianga. Iestyn Davies sang them all with so silvery a tone and so virtuosic an execution that there were times when it seemed that some members of the audience were about to stand up and cheer.
Mark Rylance’s special qualities were on display here, too, from his seemingly absolute self-absorption to his intimate awareness, and control of, everything that is going on around him. Whenever he is on stage he makes you feel that you are in that chamber with him, or in that garden; most treasurable of all, though, was his little cameo at the play’s close, emotionally blackmailing the singer with all the gusto of a grumbling parent. Colin Hurley’s Metastasio rang very true, especially in his complaints about singers, and Edward Peel’s De la Cuadra was an eloquent study of a blustering courtier of the type who cannot see beyond his own remit. Melody Grove’s Queen and Huss Garbiya’s Doctor both felt a little under-powered on this occasion. Sam Crane was a sensitive Farinelli, neatly clarifying the dichotomy between the flamboyant nature of the art of the opera singer and the reticence of a man called to perform a uniquely difficult task.
Robert Howarth directed the music from the harpsichord, and the accompaniments of John Crockatt’s violin and Pippa Macmillan’s Bass in particular equalled the virtuosity of the singing. The playing of Naomi Burrell, Pavlo Beznosiuk, James Toll, (violins) Arngeir Hauksson (Theorbo, Baroque Guitar and Recorder) and Jonathan Byers (‘Cello) also matched the director’s customary combination of scintillating playing and collaborative musicianship.
The greatness of the music is indisputable, and it was a joy to realize that so many in the audience who were hearing it, and the sound of a counter-tenor voice (not, please, a “falsettist”) for the first time, loved it so much, and the notion that a warrior king wishes to retreat to a sylvan glade where he can concentrate on “the music of the spheres” is a seductive one. However, the play has its weak moments, and for us the jokes were not quite so side-splitting as they were presumably intended to be.
The theatre looks wonderful disguised as a baroque chamber, and the effects – such as Farinelli descending from the ‘firmament’ whilst singing (a very common practice in baroque opera, which it seems will come as a surprise to some) are carried out with aplomb. Above all, it’s the singer and the king, both called to their respective roles by unnatural means, who grip our attention here – Rylance never disappoints as the vulnerable monarch, and as for Davies, Charles Burney’s words about Farinelli himself, that he “enchanted and astonished his hearers” could hardly be more apt.